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The Hungarian government goes on the offense against Germany and Austria

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Budapest, Hungary – I find it very irritating when a political commentator begins a discussion of what I consider to be a weighty issue by labeling it nothing more than a diversionary tactic of the super-clever Orbán government. Today, I spotted two such explanations for most likely carefully crafted international offensives. The claim was that their purpose was merely to divert attention from the high mortality rate of the mishandled COVID-19 pandemic.

How can anyone in his right mind believe that the Hungarian government, through its media, created two international incidents within two days purely for domestic reasons?

The Petry case: Hungary criticizes Germany on “rule of law” and “freedom of expression” grounds

I covered the first case in an article titled “A German football club fires an intolerant Hungarian coach.” A former Hungarian football player, Zsolt Petry, lost his job as a goalkeeping coach at the Hertha Berliner Sport Club as the result of an interview he gave to Magyar Nemzet in which he shared his feelings about the “moral decline” in “Christian Europe” caused by immigration. The political part of the interview sounded like a determined effort on Petry’s part to measure up to the expectations of the Orbán regime. Soon after the interview, Petry was told that since Hertha had signed the charter of diversity and tolerance, initiated by a number of football clubs, he was being dismissed.

It was expected that the Hungarian right-wing media would begin a vicious campaign against the intolerant liberals, and I chose a few examples from those reactions that appeared shortly after the incident. However, they were nothing in comparison to those that followed. Although I could quote dozens of opinion pieces, the most remarkable appeared yesterday, written by Zoltán Felföldi, a frequent contributor to Magyar Nemzet.

The title of the piece is “Liberal Nazi aggression.” Let’s not prevaricate, says the author; “what’s going on in Germany, or more generally in Western Europe, is pure totalitarianism. It is difficult to decide whether Angela Merkel’s Germany is closer to Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s or to Eric Honecker’s GDR. Anyway, there is no significant difference between the two.” Felföldi also shares a few thoughts about the “liberals [who] are essentially the same as the Nazis and the Communists.” It was these “liberal Nazis,” Felföldi writes, who “put Petry to death.” Furthermore, “let us have no illusions: we will be executed if we let them. If we keep retreating…. If we generously overlook Pride and let them march…. There is war. The liberal aggression is on the march.” One ought to keep in mind that nothing appears in Magyar Nemzet that is not approved either ahead of time or on the spot by the politically trustworthy editors.

Diversity and tolerance

Felföldi’s outrageous opinion piece was not, unlike the Petry interview, translated into EnglishGerman, and French. That was obviously a bridge too far. The paper did, however, publish another opinion piece, again in EnglishGerman, and French, on the Petry case titled “Diversity does not equal tolerance.” This opinion piece concentrates on the unfairness of the decision. Petry has been living in Germany for 17 years and has served the club well. He leaves it with a heavy heart. The victim is Petry and, through him, Hungary at the hands of the intolerant West.

At this point Péter Szijjártó, or most likely Viktor Orbán, took over the reins of the Petry affair. The German ambassador was called in to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for a lecture on tolerance and freedom of expression. According to the communiqué published by the ministry, “Germany, like Hungary, has direct historical experience of the most complete opinion terror, and therefore guarding the fundamental right to freedom of expression is our common duty. Restricting free expression is unacceptable to Hungarians because it evokes a system against which thousands of our compatriots have given their lives.”

Of course, the diplomats at the foreign ministry know as well as any of us that Hertha’s decision to fire Petry had nothing to do with the German government. And I found it positively indecent for the ministry to refer to the present Hungarian government as a guardian of free speech.

Concurrent with the Hertha-Petry affair, the Austrian government took exception to the Hungarian state television station’s three and a half minute attack on an Austrian journalist who dared to ask a few questions from the representatives of Fidesz in the European Parliament. The “guilty” foreign journalist was Franziska Tschinderle of Profil, a popular Austrian magazine.

“Provocation disguised as questions”

The questions that were considered to be so provocative were: (1) “When Orbán, Salvini, and Morawiecki joined forces in Budapest and announced the creation of a possible new alliance, why weren’t the French National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party present? (2) What is the purpose of the alliance, and who is considering joining? (3) The creation of a Eurosceptic coalition is not a new phenomenon; it dates back to the 1980s. It has repeatedly failed because of disagreements on issues such as Russia, Turkey, or anti-Semitism. How can one avoid this divisiveness now?” Of course, the Fidesz MEPs refused to answer the questions and quickly passed them on to MTVA for the purpose of pillorying the Austrian journalist for her “provocation disguised as questions.”

Christian Rainer, editor-in-chief of Profil, wrote an editorial  in which he said that MTVA’s treatment of Tschinderle was “an attack by an authoritarian regime against freedom of the press and thus against central western values.” He further pointed out that “asking critical questions is a core task of the media.” In the same issue, Tschinderle made it clear that they “will continue to report on the dismantling of democracy that is taking place in Hungary.” She also expressed the solidarity of Austrian journalists with their colleagues in Hungary “who have to experience something like this daily.” She promised “to continue to talk about the dismantling of democracy and the rule of law,” especially in the neighboring countries. At the end, she promised that “the incident only encourages [them] to stay tuned and take a closer look.”

And yes, this time it was Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg’s turn to phone his Hungarian colleague, Péter Szijjártó. Johannes Aigner, deputy department head at the Austrian foreign ministry, confirmed to Telex that the minister “immediately contacted Péter Szijjártó” and explained to him that “factual, reliable information provided by quality journalism and access to information are essential in the fight against false news.”

Schallenberg’s telephone call didn’t impress Szijjártó, who made the following comment on his Facebook page afterward: “I see, I hear that there is a lot of excitement in Austria because the Hungarian Television dared to criticize an Austrian journalist.” Essentially, Szijjártó shrugged his shoulders in public, expressing his utter indifference to his Austrian colleague’s opinion and the Austrian indignation caused by Fidesz and the Orbán government.

By the Hungarian Spectrum, a Kafkadesk partner.